An ROTC cadet can't be called up to serve in the event that the U.S. goes to war. (CARLOFRANCO/GETTY IMAGES)

3 Myths About Army ROTC Scholarships

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Army ROTC does not automatically pay for college, and signing up does not mean you’re enlisting.

By Deborah Ziff, U.S. News and World Report

As the enrollment and recruiting officer for Army ROTC at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, Travis Wright fields a lot of questions about the ROTC scholarship program. One of the biggest misunderstandings among families, he says, is that they assume if a student enrolls in ROTC, he or she will automatically receive a full scholarship.

“That’s not the case,” Wright says. “We do have scholarships that we offer out and those cover tuition and fees and some other things, but that is not a guarantee. It’s a competitive process just like receiving any other scholarship.”

The Army ROTC – in addition to the Navy and Air Force ROTC programs – is one of the nation’s biggest scholarship grantors. The Army ROTC alone provides $274 million in scholarship money to more than 13,000 students each year, according to the U.S. Army Cadet Command.

Army ROTC, which provides leadership and military training at colleges and universities across the country, has been around for more than100 years. Yet students and families often misunderstand how the program and scholarships work. Here are three common misconceptions and clarifications about the ROTC program and awards.

Myth 1: College is automatically paid for. Some students complete ROTC programs – earning a commission as second lieutenant – without ever earning a scholarship.

Army ROTC scholarships are awarded in two different ways: Students can compete nationally for a scholarship during their senior year of high school or they can join ROTC once they get to college and compete for a scholarship at the campus level.

At the national level, about 12,000 high school seniors compete for about 2,000 Army ROTC scholarships. About half of those are three-year scholarships, and the other half are four-year scholarships, says Tony Wolf, recruiting operations officer for the University of Iowa Army ROTC program. The application process is already open for those who just completed their junior year of high school.

Wolf says the majority of high school scholarship recipients are in the top 25 percent of their class, belong to an honor society and participate in organizations or sports. Wolf says students should be working on building a resume early in their high school career.

“Do well in school. Prepare yourself for the ACT. Ask to belong to the National Honor Society,” he says. “When you look at a kid out there being active, they’re naturally a great candidate for the Army ROTC and the possibility of a full-tuition scholarship.”

However, if a student misses out on the national scholarship contest, there’s still opportunity to join ROTC and compete for a scholarship once he or she is enrolled in college.

That was the case for John Ostrikis, who didn’t know he wanted to join ROTC – and didn’t even hear about the program – until right before he started college.

Ostrikis, who recently graduated from Westfield State University in Westfield, Massachusetts, says he joined because he wanted to serve as an Army officer, adding that the scholarship did not play a big role in his decision. However, starting the second semester of freshman year, he received a scholarship covering his room and board – a cost he otherwise would have had to cover on his own.

Cadets are allowed to choose between applying the scholarship toward full tuition and fees – no matter the institution – or room and board, up to $5,000 per semester.

Myth 2: Joining ROTC means you’re enlisting. Students can do a two-year trial period with Army ROTC before making any commitments to the Army.

However, when a student accepts a scholarship, he or she signs a contract with ROTC promising to hit certain academic benchmarks and to serve in the armed forces after graduation. This is called “contracting,” Wright says.

“The scholarship does bind them to service,” Wolf says. “Not every student walks into that classroom ready to make that commitment.”

The service obligation is generally eight years and can be on active duty, National Guard, Army Reserve or a combination.

“In some way, shape or form, if you go through the program, this is regardless of whether you’re on scholarship or not, you owe the Army eight years of your life,” Wright says.

If a student doesn’t meet the program’s requirements, gets kicked out of school or doesn’t commission into the Army, he or she will likely have to pay the scholarship back. The exception is if a medical condition prevents someone from joining, Wright says.

Myth 3: You could be called up. An ROTC cadet is considered nondeployable in the event that the U.S. goes to war. That’s the case even if the cadet is part of a National Guard unit that deploys, Wolf says.

“If a student is in ROTC, he is just a student,” Wright says. “Once he gets commissioned, then he belongs to Army, and yes, then he can be mobilized.”